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Irreconcilable Differences

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Though I feel sure it was in no way his intention, Christopher Majka has done me a great service. In his exchange with me over the past couple of days he has fully shown the futility of debate between agonists that each reject the foundational premises of the other.

Majka makes claims about Ukraine and adduces a source; I show the source in an unfavorable light and offer counter-examples drawing on alternate sources; Majka responds with more claims based on different sources. This see-saw could conceivably continue forever―and this is without even considering all of Majka's misrepresentations or misinterpretations of my position.

Is there no way to resolve this impasse? Not really. It all comes down to: "Who ya gonna believe?"

I can point out that no country in the world has anything vaguely approaching the history of violence of the United States, both at home and abroad. Two centuries ago Simón Bolívar observed that: "The United States appear to be destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty."

Bolívar's statement has been borne out countless times―but across the whole planet and not the Americas only. This strikes me as obviously relevant in the case of conflicting accounts of what has been going on in Ukraine.

For his part, Majka would likely say: that was then, this is now (although the "then" is still occurring daily in, e.g., Iraq and Syria). Each situation must be evaluated on its merits. Just because the United States has abetted coup attempts in dozens of countries―including Venezuela in 2002, Bolivia in 2008, Honduras in 2009, Ecuador in 2010 and Paraguay in 2012―that doesn't mean that's what happened in Ukraine.

Quite right. That such destabilization efforts by Washington have often been organized through the US Agency for International Development (serving time and again as cover for the CIA), which Majka refers to as "building democracy" in Ukraine, may also be no more than a coincidence. Personally, however, I think that when a pattern reasserts itself literally hundreds of times the balance of probabilities suggests that, when a similar incident occurs, it likely is attributable to the same cause. Nonetheless, Majka is on impeccable logical ground in saying that this isn't necessarily the case.

I could point to the literature of critical media studies that have shown time and again, through exhaustive empirical and analytical work, that the mainstream media―both private and public―in liberal democracies demonstrates a consistent and overwhelming pro-establishment bias. Since the position on Ukraine that Majka upholds so vehemently is indubitably that of the entire Western establishment, here too the balance of probabilities would strongly suggest that Majka is serving, wittingly or otherwise, as an adjunct of US imperialism.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that one should ever suspend critical judgment in assessing a given situation. I am talking about starting points: mine is that, based on a pattern consistent over the greater part of a century, the fundamental motivations for US foreign policy are safeguarding the interests of capitalists and of Washington's place at the apex of global political economy. Any other considerations, such as upholding liberal democracy, are never of central importance and are always purely instrumental in nature.

Obviously I have my own opinions about what is reasonable to believe, and why, while Majka operates with a different set of premises. For the two of us to have a productive conversation about Ukraine would require that one or other of us first change our basic understanding of how the world works.

This brings me back to my starting point. If Majka's thinking is reasonably representative of that which attaches to the NDP as an organization―and I believe it is―it is simply not possible for socialists to debate, within the party, questions of the utmost importance. Which, of course, provides strong backing for my claim that there is no possible place for socialists in today's electoral arena.

The dispute between Majka and myself goes to the heart of this question. Majka does not acknowledge that US imperialism is an implacable and monolithic force for ill in the world and that while there are any number of other ruthless folks (such as Putin or Assad) out there who, from time to time, draw fire from the US, these conflicts have absolutely nothing to do with matters of principle (on either side). It is a naked power struggle: at a first approximation, the international capitalist class against the planet; using a finer lens, Washington über alles. US imperialism is sui generis: not because it is intrinsically more evil than any other form of machtpolitik but because the US―as its ruling class knows full well―commands powers in excess of that of the entire rest of the world combined. Majka cannot recognize any of this without implicitly condemning capitalism as utterly irredeemable and inimical to human thriving―which is something he will not do.

He is not alone in this of course. The vast majority of people in the upper echelons of society worldwide take the same position―as socialism would predict they would, based on their class interest. This is in no way to impugn Majka or anyone else personally. To be clear: I have absolutely zero reason to suppose that Majka's perspective is based on anything other than the sincerest moral and intellectual conviction. However, a fundamental axiom of Marxist analysis is that one does not look to decode behaviour in the aggregate by examining individual motivations but rather by an examination of people's structural position within the relations of production. It is not a matter of blaming or shaming anyone. Why any given person holds the position she does is quite irrelevant to such analysis; the point is to comprehend why, on average, people think and act as they do.

A further point that requires to be understood here is that the principal weight in such analysis should not be given to a person's background: being raised in a working-class household is no more a guarantee that one will embrace socialism than growing up affluent ensures that one will become an advocate for capitalism. Rather, the most significant determinant (generally, but of course not always, and never in isolation from other factors) will be one's present, and to some extent aspirational, position within the relations of production. Since the NDP is part of the Canadian establishment its chief functionaries are, by definition, part of the ruling class. Which is as much to say, they will ipso facto hold a pro-capitalist parti pris. Perhaps even more important, they will implicitly tend to see the world from the viewpoint of capital.

I maintain that capitalism―which is the fundamental project of the US imperial state―is killing us. Majka wouldn't agree with me, which is fine, but which is also why we can't have a sensible discussion about politics. However, I can't see how any socialist who has given thought to the prospect of nuclear war and to the planet's environmental crises and to numerous other such factors could disagree with my thesis, on pain of self-contradiction.

Assuming I'm right on that last point, my exchange with Majka indicates the futility of socialist participation in electoral politics. As Majka's arguments show, there simply is no meaningful common ground on which socialists and liberals can discuss the most critical, fundamental and potentially fatal problems besetting the planet.

This doesn't mean that the two groups can't cooperate in certain respects; e.g., I admired Majka's stance on the brown spruce longhorn beetle problem some years ago. What it does mean is that we will not be able to agree on how to deal with the really big, life and death questions facing humanity because our perspectives are mutually exclusive. Socialists are not going to win over the liberals in the NDP and, on a socialist analysis, the policy prescriptions of the liberals are both morally unconscionable and, in real terms, virtually a death sentence for humanity.

Essentially, then, the choice for socialists is to remain within the ambit of the NDP and hope to secure agreement with the liberal majority on matters of secondary importance, or to give up the NDP as a bad job and to mobilize autonomously on the issues that will determine the fate of humanity. As I see it, the lives of all of us hang in the balance.

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Ideology versus Reason: How abandoning evidence leads to absurdi

Thos following this thread may wish to ready my response to this piece, Ideology versus Reason: How abandoning evidence leads to absurdity.


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